Photo by Bogdan Wankowicz | Shutterstock.com
Where do your seeds come from?
BY TERRA BROCKMAN
Spring comes spring-loaded with hope. The first green leaves, the first warm sun on your shoulder, the first ecstatic birds greeting that sun—all make the heart sing with the possibilities of spring.
But for gardeners and farmers, those hopes are surrounded by uncertainties: Will it rain enough? Or too much? Will the spring be too cold? Will the summer be too hot? Will the crops be damaged by high winds or a freak hailstorm? Will the first frost come too soon?
Now there is one more uncertainty to add: Who owns the seeds your vegetables come from?
Every vegetable you eat started with a seed, a miracle of life inside a hard overcoat. Before 1985, indeed, before the dawn of agriculture, no one owned the genetic material under that overcoat. Seeds were the original “open source” item—available to anyone who gathered them up to save or plant.
But in 1980, all that changed. That year, the Supreme Court decided in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty that you could patent life forms—a human-made microorganism created in a laboratory— just as you could patent a machine or widget manufactured in a factory.
In ruling that genetic coding could be owned, the Supreme Court opened the doors to corporations (mostly pharmaceutical and chemical companies) wanting to own and manipulate the genetic material found in seeds. Their first targets were companies that owned commodity crop seeds, since that’s where the acreage and money are. But in the 2000s these corporations turned to “specialty” (fruit and vegetable) crops.
In 2005, Monsanto inserted itself into family gardens when it bought the world’s largest vegetable seed company, Semini. Seminis Seeds supplies thousands of varieties of seed to Burpee, Park Seed, Territorial, Johnny’s Seeds, and many others. A complete listing of vegetable varieties offered by Seminis (and owned by Monsanto) can be found on their website. This list includes many favorites of both home and commercial growers, including “Packman” broccoli and “Big Boy,” “Better Boy,” and “Super Marzano” tomatoes, varieties available at neighborhood garden centers.
Then, in 2008 Monsanto purchased De Ruiter Seeds, one of the top vegetable breeders in the world. Now more than 55% of store-bought lettuce, 75% of U.S. tomatoes, and 85% of peppers pass through Monsanto’s fingers before they reach your mouth. This means a full 98% of all the world’s seeds are now owned by six companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Du- Pont, Aventis, Mitsui, and Dow.
John Swenson, a Chicago-area advocate for openpollinated vegetables (and a seed-saver himself ) believes big seed corporations have dangerous short and long-range objectives. “Short range, of course, is profit. Long range, their objective is a monopoly of the seed business, forcing all those who grow plants to buy their increasingly harmful products.”
University of Wisconsin plant breeder Dr. William F. Tracy concurs: “Placing the responsibility for the world’s crop germplasm and plant improvement in the hands of a few companies is bad public policy. The primary goal of private corporations is to make profit, and…this goal will be at odds with certain public needs.”
Among those many “public needs” are the need for democratic access to seeds, the need to know the nature of the vegetables we buy and eat, and the need for more biodiversity. But concentrated corporate ownership of seeds has led to far less biodiversity in U.S. seed catalogs: in 1981 there were about 5,000 varieties commonly available, while today there are less than 500 varieties.
Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds, laments, “What you have predominantly is somebody in a greenhouse or laboratory somewhere making judgment calls about where they think the greatest profit is for developing new varieties. Generally, they’re paying no attention to the nutritional, ecological and economic health of the people eating the varieties, the health of the farmers growing it or the health of the communities.”
Swenson is blunt alleging that corporations owning and manipulating seeds are “holding the food consuming public at gunpoint.”
Once a seed is patented, the farmer cannot save seed to plant the next year, and both farmer and consumer become utterly dependent on seed companies, losing their independence and self-sufficiency. They also lose access to information about that seed and the vegetable that comes from it.
There is a bright spot on the horizon. Many individuals, nonprofits, farmers, and independent seed companies are busy ensuring seed access, diversity, community building and a seed heritage for future generations. Groups like Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange are increasing their membership and seed offerings year after year.
The first step many of them took after Monsanto acquired Seminis, was to stop carrying Seminis varieties. One such company is the worker/consumer cooperative Fedco Seeds. The president of Fedco, C. R. Lawn, explained “the current industrial seed system rests upon the unholy trinity of biotechnology, corporate concentration and intellectual property rights.” His seed company rejects that mind-set and along with hundreds of other small seed companies has signed the “Safe Seed Pledge” originally put forth by High Mowing Seeds, a Vermont company.
Here is the main text of the Safe Seed Pledge: Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.
As the plant breeder Dr. William Tracy reminds us “The future of our food supply requires genetic diversity but also demands a diversity of decision makers.”
That’s where YOU come in—whether you are a gardener or shopper or both. Ask your farmers where they get their seeds, and whether those companies have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. You decide who you want the decision makers to be simply by putting your money in their pockets whenever you buy seeds or vegetables.
This spring, inform yourself, dig in, and plant a seed. Just make sure it’s a seed of delicious self-sufficiency and independence, a seed of hope.
Terra Brockman is a sustainable food advocate and the author of The Seasons on Henry’s Farm. She is also a speaker and founder of the Land Connection, a nonprofit with a mission to preserve farmland. Ever passionate about the local foodshed, she also sheds light on issues that affect the diversity and sustainability of the planet.
Edible Michiana thanks Edible Chicago for sharing this article.
At a time when consumers are demanding more information about who grows their food and how, many seed corporations are providing less—manipulating the seeds in ways that most consumers are unaware of. For example, as I am writing, I see a variety of genetically modified sweet corn featured on the homepage of Seminis seeds. Of course they don’t exactly say that’s what it is—here’s their ad copy:
Seminis® Performance Series™ Sweet Corn hybrid Obsession II is one of three new fresh market sweet corn hybrids that offers both above-ground and below-ground insect protection, while also offering tolerance to Roundup WeatherMAX® and Roundup PowerMAX®.
By closely examining the language, consumers can begin to comprehend that Seminis is offering genetically modified sweet corn for human consumption. The first clue is the “TM,” and the next clue is that the corn “offers insect protection.” This means the corn has been modified so that every cell of the plant, including the kernels you eat, contains a genetically engineered bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin that kills insects. It doesn’t kill people, of course, but if it kills insects, it is most definitely toxic. And eating a plant in which insecticide is embedded is worse that eating a plant that has been sprayed, because you can’t even try to wash it off. As my neighbor and longtime organic farmer Willis Weigand was fond of saying, “If it ends in –cide, it’s poison.”
In 2011, a Canadian study found that the GMO toxin inserted in Bt field corn was found in the bloodstreams of 93 percent of pregnant women—just from its presence in processed grains and highly processed food products.
Eating a whole ear of genetically modified sweet corn would most likely deliver even more of the genetically modified Bt toxin into our bodies.
The third clue as to how this corn has been genetically modified is that it is tolerant of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup®—meaning that an ear of sweet corn from these seeds will have been sprayed multiple times with a chemical that has been shown to have deleterious effects on soil, wildlife and humans.
If there were truth and transparency in the description of Obsession II, it might read: Seminis® Performance Series™ Genetically Modified Sweet Corn Obsession II is one of three new fresh market sweet corns genetically engineered to tolerate multiple applications of the toxic herbicide Roundup® and to produce the insect-killing pesticide Bt in every cell of the corn plant, including roots, leaves and kernels.
If that sounds like a vegetable you’d rather not eat, you’re right.
A study published by the International Journal of Biological Sciences found that Monsanto’s GMO field corn led to organ toxicity in mammals. Monsanto countered with its own statement denouncing the study, calling into question the research methods. But according to Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, this GMO corn is linked to a new pathogen causing crop failure and a sharp spike in livestock infertility (up to 20%) and spontaneous abortions (up to 45%) in cattle.
But, just as other GMO foods are not required to have special labeling, consumers will have no way of knowing if they’re purchasing genetically modified sweet corn. According to SourceWatch.org and others, this is because of a cozy revolving-door relationship between industry and government regulators.
John Swenson, a Chicago area non-GMO seed advocate points out that while chemical and biotech companies “have unleashed a whole legion of plants, the toxicity of which is unknown, the USDA seems to be indifferent.”
Although government complicity with corporate ownership and genetic modification of seeds is one more item in the litany of woe that is our modern world, hope springs eternal…especially in the spring.
INDIANA & MICHIGAN SEED COMPANIES
Garden Harvest Supply Inc.
Nature’s Crossroads, LLC
Rich Farm Garden Supply
Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
Orchard House Heirlooms